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GCC-US summit: Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia

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President Obama’s recent visit to Riyadh to meet Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders was aimed at allaying fears in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that Washington’s commitment to their security had diminished.

The president hoped to use his fourth and probably final trip to the kingdom to dispel some of the frustration felt by Gulf countries toward his administration, in what one senior US official said was a chance to “clear the air”. USA reaffirmed the policy to use all elements to secure the core interests in the Gulf region. However, his visit has not achieved its stated objective.

Obama acknowledged the strains that have afflicted ties between Washington and its Gulf partners, even as they have worked together on shared concerns such as the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They fear, may be without proof, Russia is creating misunderstanding between USA and Arab nations.

GCC-US summit in Riyadh

As USA continues to manage the show in the Mideast region by claiming to be their permanent ally, US President Barack Obama attended a Saudi sponsored second US- Gulf Cooperation Council summit on April 21in Riyadh that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. On the previous day (20th April), Barack Obama met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to seek joint action on security threats including Iran and Islamic State group but nothing worked for Washington.

The US-GCC summit took place amid terror wars in Middle East with shifting political and economic scenes and it comes at a time when the views of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council on regional politics are drastically different. GCC – US summit began as the multilateral war in Syria enters its fifth year with massive humanitarian, political and economic ramifications. The visit for the summit comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained US relations with the Saudis, who remain deeply opposed to his outreach to Iran and skeptical of his approach to Syria.

According to the GCC spokesperson, the main issue on the summit’s agenda was the Iranian interventions in Middle East regional politics. Also high on the agenda, according to a White House official, is the usual terrorism and the fight against Islamic State group and other military/intelligence sharing issues. The USA is more concerned with the persistent GCC-Iran rivalry and the burden it places on the USA to “settle scores” once it gets out of capacity.

Last May, Obama hosted the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for a rare summit at the Camp David presidential retreat. He pledged then that the US would cooperate with them to address what he called Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region”. American call for coexistence, after violence and aggression has taken precedence, can now prove elusive. This is easily demonstrated after the bitter and costly confrontations in the region.

King Salman, speaking through a translator, offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth trip here for face-to-face meetings and photos with royal rulers since becoming president. The president was slated to spend little more than 24 hours in the Saudi capital before heading on to visits to London and Hannover, Germany.

As Arab nations are unhappy with the continued pro-Israeli policy of US presidents and the new US policy for Iran, US President Barack Obama failed to convince the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, during their April 22 summit in Riyadh, to support his Middle East policy and cooperate with Washington.

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, Obama has promised countless times that Washington would train and arm Syrian rebel forces outside the country, and then deploy them in Syria in order to strengthen rebel forces. However, it has not done so except for one instance in 2015. All of Washington’s efforts to recruit and train Syrian fighters, which have cost close to $1 billion, have failed. The US infiltrated a small force consisting of no more than several dozen fighters, but it was destroyed by the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, shortly after it crossed the border. The terrorist group had apparently been tipped off about the arrival of the pro-American force.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lauded the summit as “constructive and fruitful”, according to the Saudi Press Agency, and pledged the “desire and commitment” of GCC countries to continue developing their ties with the United States. Footage and photographs aired on state media showed the leaders at a large circular table under a chandelier, with Obama sitting with King Salman on his left and the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan on his right.

His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain said that the GCC-US Summit in Saudi capital, Riyadh, clearly reflects outstanding relations between the GCC countries and the USA and underlines success of dialogue as an approach and continuous consultation regarding various issues. He stressed that the prospective summit is part of the unrelenting efforts of the GCC countries to boost regional welfare through coordination with friendly countries and influential powers, including mainly the USA. He noted that the GCC countries have drawn a well-defined framework for cooperation with the rest of the world based on transparency, credibility and decisiveness in working out solutions and tackling threats, emphasizing the importance of constructive global cooperation to overcome challenges and achieve permanent security and stability.

The summit in Riyadh, Obama’s final meeting with GCC leaders before he leaves the White House next January, ended without a single agreement.

US policy and regional instability

Middle East as well as West Asia has been the most volatile region on earth, owing mainly US determination to sustain Israeli dominance in the region by upgrading its military-terror equipment with fresh supplies all the time.

The Sunni Muslim-ruled Arabia kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the largest buyer of American-made weapons, sees Shiite-led Iran as its main rival. Saudi leaders are concerned that concessions granted to Iran in last year’s nuclear deal will embolden it to pursue what the Saudis view as aggressive meddling throughout the region. Salman’s reign has overseen a more assertive foreign policy, with Saudis venturing into Yemen and pushing the US to take more aggressive moves to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Saudi kingdom is opposed to Iran. On April 19, several hours before Obama’s departure for Riyadh, Iran carried out its latest act of defiance by attempting to launch a satellite into orbit using one of its “Simorgh” intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile failed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, fell to earth and crashed along with the satellite. Obama turned down the Gulf leaders on new sanctions as well.

A couple of weeks ago, top oil producers failed to reach consensus on a freeze of oil production; reflecting the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran aims to increase production to compensate for its long years under sanctions.

The domestic economic scene in Mideast is another aspect that should not be neglected. While economic leverage was presumed to be the cushion that prevented social unrest in the GCC region, economic cuts as a result of the low oil prices are beginning to impact societies.

The situation across the region is hardly different. A new revolution is fermenting in Egypt. Lebanon recently lost a promised $4bn Saudi military aid for not backing GCC side against Iran. Officials in Lebanon did not endorse an Arab League public condemnation of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese armed militia. In Yemen, a Saudi-led GCC coalition war has entered its second year without a foreseeable resolution. Houthi rebels refused to attend a recent UN-backed negotiation in Kuwait for failure of “the other party to commit to a ceasefire”. The situation in Yemen is rapidly approaching the Syrian multilateral war scene. The Yemeni negotiations are also obstructed by the Houthis’ demand to replace Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a president and by Yemen’s southern secessionist movement demand for immediate secession. A recent manifestation took place in Kuwait where oil workers began a strike over public sector pay reforms. There are growing fears that the strike might extend to neighboring GCC countries, particularly in light of recent economic measures.

Deeply worried about US stand on Iran, Saudi Arabia recently established a bloc and with Turkey along with Egypt and Jordan to oppose Obama’s Middle East policy, started to infiltrate a force of 3,500 rebels back into Syria. The force has been trained and financed by the Saudis at special camps in Turkey and Jordan. Members of the force are now fighting alongside other rebels north of Aleppo, but they are being bombed heavily by the Russian and Syrian air forces.

Saudi Arabia is annoyed that USA in Syria looks other way. In fact, Riyadh sent the rebels into Syria to demonstrate to Obama that the Saudi royal family opposes the policy of diplomatic and military cooperation between the US and Russia regarding Syria that enables President Bashar Assad to remain in power in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia, with Turkey’s help, and the US carried out separate military operations several hours before the start of the summit that showed the extent of their differences. The US last week started to use its giant B-52 bombers against ISIS in an attempt to show Gulf leaders that it is determined to quash the terrorist organization’s threat to Gulf States. The bombers deployed at Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase attacked targets around Mosul in northern Iraq, but the targets were not identified.

In anticipation of Obama’s second visit to Saudi kingdom, a group of human rights advocated have written an open letter to urge the president to pressure GCC leaders for political and civil reforms. Last year, the US-GCC summit received similar appeals. Understandably, it is hard to conceptualize the link between more freedom and civil rights in GCC and regional stability, as there are many variables involved in fostering and enabling regional violence. It is, therefore, expected that any strategies aimed at achieving regional stability and economic reforms will need to apply measures of meaningful political reforms, but keeping Islamic system intact, not only to drive regional stability but also to reduce the effect of replicating the NATO violent ideology in Mideast, fuelling the regional conflicts. It is not a question of luxury but of necessity to press for a space for a discourse of moderation and modernisation, without in any way opposing Islamic values, where the price of freedom of expression, and that of regional stability, is not paid in life or liberty. Nothing should be negatively influencing Islamic faith.

Divergence and failed mission

Stepping off of Air Force One earlier at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted on a red carpet not by King Salman but by Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Before Obama landed, Saudi state television did not immediately air Obama’s arrival, but showed the king greeting other senior officials from Gulf nations arriving for the summit.

Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the smell of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for camera pictures at the start of their private meeting. “The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-US summit that’s taking place tomorrow,” Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

The White House said would focus on regional stability, counterterrorism including the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and Iran. Talks addressed the Saudi-led military campaign against Shiite rebels and their allies in neighboring Yemen. US officials have expressed hope the latest meeting will build on last year’s Camp David summit, though they acknowledge differences remain between the US and Saudi Arabia. It was hoped the summit would come up with results that would help handle the grave regional and international challenges, boost regional peace and security and achieve aspirations for more welfare by adhering to clear-cut principles, including mainly mutual respect, no interference in countries’ internal affairs and respect of international laws.

The leaders of the six GCC member states put their previous differences aside and presented President Obama with four requests aimed at building a new joint policy regarding the region, namely, Action by Washington to strengthen the Sunni majority in Iraq and facilitate representation of the Sunnis in the central government in Baghdad. The Gulf rulers told Obama that his policy of trying to win the support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is mistaken. Obama rejected the request and said he refuses to change his Iraq policy.

Further, the GCC sought imposition of new US sanctions on Iran over its continuing ballistic missile tests and provision of US-made F-35 fighter-bombers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE so they can take action against the Iranian missile threat. GCC also wants USA ti abandon Washington’s cooperation with Russia and the UN for political solution in Syria, and instead cooperate with Gulf States and Turkey to end the war and depose President Bashar Assad. The US president declined all the requests and refused to oblige Arab nations.

Observation

The Middle East is mired in a contest for influence between a bloc of mostly Sunni countries, including the conservative, pro-Western Gulf monarchies, and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran and its allies. Most of the GCC states have been bitterly disappointed in Obama’s presidency, during which they believe the USA has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran. They were also upset by Obama’s remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as “free-riders” in US security efforts and urged them to “share” the region with Tehran. This obviously has upset the Arab leaders.

Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia amid tension with Arab nations over Israel and Iran would put the bilateral ties under further strains. Saudi Arabia has clearly offered Obama to choose between GCC and Iran. However, as the global super power with veto facility, Washington cannot take a firm decision on the matter as it advances national interest globally.

Recent expressions of frustration by Obama revealed some of the contentious differences on key issues. President Barack Obama pledged to “deter aggression” against Gulf Arab allies increasingly concerned about Iran’s influence in the region but did not shy away from raising sensitive issues in talks aimed at addressing recent strains in US-Gulf ties. Washington says the USA remains deeply enmeshed in Gulf security, cooperating closely with the monarchies to strengthen their armed forces and share intelligence aimed at countering Islamist militant groups. Obama said the USA shares the Gulf countries’ concerns about what he called destabilizing activities by Iran, which agreed with major powers in July 2015 to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of some sanctions.

The American president has said he wants Gulf allies to offer more democratic reforms and improve human rights, and he discussed that with King Salman. Obama also raised the issue of sectarianism, for which he has chided Gulf states in the past on grounds it fuels militancy, saying “the prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly and … sectarianism is an enemy of peace and prosperity”. Adding to tensions is a bill proposed in US Congress to lift Riyadh’s immunity if any Saudi officials are found to have been involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama has said he opposes the bill because it could lead to cases directed against the United States in foreign courts.

Saudi Arabia led Arab nations have a vital role to play in Islamic world to consciously promote Islamic faith and Islamic values. Although this role could also be played by Turkey and Iran, central role Arab leadership should play in this cannot be belittled. After all, Islam was born in Saudi Arabia. True, today there is an apparent shift in Arab thinking to equate Islam with capitalism as crony capitalism has spread in Arab world as fast as in Israel and western world. Arab governments very seriously promote corporatism as the next level of capitalism and now, unfortunately, linking the capitalist trend even with ugly and dirty imperialism. Saudi led GCC nations are also fighting wars in Mideast.

As Arab nations are trying to bring Islam closer to western capitalism, they also look for active support of the western powers for their promotion of capitalism and support for imperialism.

Arab world is suspicious of US intentions in the region. Of course, USA possesses ample number of tools to keep the Arab nations under its strict control, despite the differences in their relations over Iran and Israel. After all USA is reining superpower – considered as the formidable threat even by equally strong power Russia in all spheres – and Saudi Arabia is not.

Saudi Arabia is not even a veto power. Obama visit to Riyadh clearly reveals the serious nature of crisis in bilateral relations, not withstanding increasing mutual trade in oil and arms.

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MbS: Riding roughshod or playing a risky game of bluff poker?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A stalemate in efforts to determine what happened to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is threatening to escalate into a crisis that could usher in a new era in relations between the United States and some of its closest Arab allies as well as in the region’s energy politics.

In response to US President Donald J. Trump’s threat of “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia is proven to have been responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance while visiting the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Saudi Arabia is threatening to potentially upset the region’s energy and security architecture.

A tweet by Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy thanking the United States for not jumping to conclusions did little to offset the words of an unnamed Saudi official quoted by the state-run news agency stressing  the kingdom’s “total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations.”

The official was referring to the kingdom’s insistence that it was not responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and assertion that it is confronting a conspiracy by Qatar and/or Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“The kingdom also affirms that if it is (targeted by) any action, it will respond with greater action,” the official said noting that Saudi Arabia “plays an effective and vital role in the world economy.”

Turki Aldhakhil, a close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and general manager of the kingdom’s state-controlled Al Arabiya news network, claimed in an online article that Saudi leaders were discussing 30 ways of responding to possible US sanctions.

They allegedly included allowing oil prices to rise up to US$ 200 per barrel, which according to Mr. Aldhakhil, would lead to “the death” of the US economy, pricing Saudi oil in Chinese yuan instead of dollars, an end to intelligence sharing, and a military alliance with Russia that would involve a Russian military base in the kingdom.

It remains unclear whether Mr. Aldhakhil was reflecting serious discussions among secretive Saudi leaders or whether his article was intended either as a scare tactic or a trial balloon. Mr. Aldakhil’s claim that a Saudi response to Western sanctions could entail a reconciliation with the kingdom’s arch enemy, Iran, would make his assertion seem more like geopolitical and economic bluff.

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a coordinated response aimed at demonstrating that Saudi Arabia was not isolated, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt rushed to express solidarity with the kingdom. Like Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE have a track record of suppressing independent journalism and freedom of the press.

Ironically, Turkey may be the kingdom’s best friend in the Khashoggi crisis if its claims to have incontrovertible proof of what happened in the consulate prove to be true. Turkey has so far refrained from making that evidence public, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to come up with a credible explanation.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip “Erdogan wants to give Saudis an exit out of #Khashoggi case, hoping the Saudi king/crown prince will blame ‘rogue elements’ for the alleged murder, then throwing someone important under the bus. This would let Erdogan walk away looking good & prevent rupture in Turkey-Saudi ties,” tweeted Turkey scholar Soner Cagaptay.

The Saudi news agency report and Mr. Aldakhil’s article suggest that Prince Mohammed believes that Saudi Arabia either retains the clout to impose its will on much of the international community or believes that it rather than its Western critics would emerge on top from any bruising confrontation.

Prince Mohammed no doubt is reinforced in his belief by Mr. Trump’s reluctance to include an arms embargo in his concept of severe punishment. He may also feel that Western support for the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and reluctance to credibly take the kingdom to task for its conduct of the war was an indication that he was free to do as he pleased.

Prince Mohammed may have been further strengthened in his belief by the initial course of events 28 years ago, the last time that the fate of a journalist was at the centre of a crisis between a Western power and an Arab country.

At the time, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, similar to Mr. Trump’s inclination, refused to impose economic sanctions after Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered the arrest, torture and execution of Farhad Barzoft, a young London-based Iranian journalist who reported for The Observer.

Since declassified British government documents disclosed that Mrs. Thatcher’s government did not want to jeopardize commercial relations despite its view of the Iraqi government as a “ruthless and disagreeable regime.”

The comparison between the Khashoggi crisis and the case of Mr. Barzoft goes beyond Western governments’ reluctance to jeopardize commercial relationships.

Mr Barzoft was executed months before Mr. Hussein’s military invaded Kuwait prompting US-led military action that forced his troops to withdraw from the Gulf state, crippling economic sanctions, and ultimately the 2003 Gulf War that, no matter how ill-advised, led to the Iraqi leader’s downfall and ultimate execution.

Prince Mohammed’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen, of which Mr. Khashoggi was critical in one of his last Washington Post columns, has tarnished the kingdom’s international prestige and sparked calls in the US Congress and European parliaments for an embargo on arms sales that have gained momentum with the disappearance of the Saudi journalist.

To be sure Saudi Arabia enjoys greater leverage than Iraq did in 1990. By the same token, 2018 is not 1973, the first and only time the kingdom ever wielded oil as a weapon against the United States. At the time, the US was dependent on Middle Eastern oil, today it is one of, if not the world’s largest producer.

More fundamentally, Prince Mohammed appears to show some of the traits Mr. Hussein put on display, including a seeming lack of understanding of the limits of power and best ways to wield it, a tendency towards impetuousness, a willingness to take risks and gamble without having a credible exit strategy, a refusal to tolerate any form of criticism, and a streak of ruthlessness.

“We’re discovering what this ‘new king’ is all about, and it’s getting worrisome. The dark side is getting darker,” said David Ottaway, a journalist and scholar who has covered Saudi Arabia for decades.

Mr. Hussein was public and transparent about Mr. Barzoft’s fate even if his assertion that the journalist was a spy lacked credibility and the journalist’s confession and trial were a mockery of justice.

Prince Mohammed flatly denies any involvement in the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi and appears to believe that he can bully himself out of the crisis in the absence of any evidence that the journalist left the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate of his own volition.

Mr. Hussein miscalculated with his invasion of Kuwait shortly after getting away with the killing of Mr. Barzoft.

Prince Mohammed too may well have miscalculated if the kingdom is proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Mr. Hussein’s reputation and international goodwill was irreparably damaged by his execution of Mr. Barzoft and invasion of Kuwait.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance has dealt a body blow to Saudi Arabia’s prestige irrespective of whether the journalist emerges from the current crisis alive or dead.

King Salman and the kingdom appear for now to be rallying the wagons around the crown prince.

At the same time, the king has stepped into the fray publicly for the first time by phoning Turkish president Erdogan to reaffirm Saudi cooperation with an investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

It remains unclear whether that phone call will pave the way for Turkish investigators to enter the Istanbul consulate as well as the Saudi consul general’s home and whether they will be allowed to carry out forensics.

The longer the investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate stalls, the more Saudi Arabia will come under pressure to put forth a credible explanation and the harder Western leaders will be pressed by public opinion and lawmakers to take credible action if Saudi Arabia is proven to be responsible.

A Saudi decision to act on its threats to rejigger its security arrangements and energy policy, even if overstated by Mr. Aldhakhil, in response to steps by Western nations to penalize the kingdom,  could prove to have not only far-reaching international consequences but, in the final analysis, also equally momentous domestic ones.

“Looks like #Saudi royal family is coming together to protect the family business. Eventually there will be internal reckoning with what transpired. Not now. Now is the time to save the family reign,” tweeted Middle East scholar Randa Slim.

Said former US State Department and White House official Elliott Abrams: “Jamal Khashoggi lost control of his fate when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Mohammed bin Salman must act quickly to regain control of his own.”

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Syrian Kurds between Washington, Turkey and Damascus

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The recent turmoil over Idlib has pushed the developments in Syrian Kurdistan out of political and mass media spotlight. However, it’s Idlib that will most likely host the final act of the drama, which has become known as the “civil war in Syria”.

The self-proclaimed Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), or Rojava, was formed in 2016, although de facto it has existed since 2012. Added later was the hydrocarbon-rich left bank of the Euphrates, which had been cleared of militants of ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), and now the jurisdiction of the unrecognized DFNS extends to almost a third of the country’s territory.

From the very start the main threat to the existence of this predominantly Kurdish quasi-state came for obvious reasons from Turkey, where Turkish Kurds were set on securing autonomy. In addition, the most influential political force in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party, is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and the latter has officially been declared a terrorist organization and unofficially – a number one enemy – in Turkey.

In January-March 2018, the Turkish army, backed by the Arab and Turkomanen allies, occupied part of the territory of Rojava (canton Afrin). And it looks like Ankara plans to settle on these territories: recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Afrin will be transferred to its residents “when the time comes” and that “this time will be set by us”. In the meantime, according to local media reports, the demographic situation in the canton is changing rapidly. Taking advantage of the fact that many Kurds left their homes at the approach of the Turkish army, the local (in fact, Turkish) administration is bringing in Arabs here, who, in many cases, are not Syrian Arabs.

Kurdish politicians, fully aware of the fact that amid Turkey, Iran and Syria maintaining statehood without outside assistance is hardly possible, opted for the patronage of Washington. And, as it seems, they lost.

In Syria, the Americans decided to replay the “Kosovo scenario”, by turning part of a sovereign state into a political structure, which is allied to them. Washington, which only recently excluded the People’s Protection Units (the armed wing of the Democratic Forces), from the list of terrorist organizations, argues, like Ankara, that its military personnel will remain in the region “for an indefinite period” to protect Kurdish territories from “aggression” on the part of Damascus. And from Ankara’s ambitions as well. But this is read between the lines.

All this enabled Turkey to accuse the United States of supporting terrorism and relations between the two countries quickly deteriorated into a crisis. As mutual accusations, occasionally supported by political and economic demarches, persist, the parties, however, are beginning to look for common ground. Talks on June 4, 2018 in Washington between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo resulted in a “road map” for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from predominantly Arab Manbij, which Kurds regained control of from ISIL (an organization banned in Russia) two years ago. The next day, the Turkish minister announced that the Kurdish troops “… would retreat east of the Euphrates. However, this does not mean that we will agree that they stay there. ” On September 24, 2018, upon arriving at the UN General Assembly, Erdogan confirmed: Turkey will expand its sphere of influence in Syria, by including areas that are under control of the Kurdish armed units.

If Turkey does not change its rhetoric, then the assurances of the American authorities that the US troops will remain in Syria are intermingled with statements about the need for the withdrawal of its forces from this country. In any case, it is unlikely that the United States will choose to leave the region “to its own devices”. We can recall how Washington trumpeted the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan! But things haven’t budged an inch since then. The Afghanistan example demonstrates that the Americans will not move out of Syria that easily – they will not pull out in full, at least not of their own free will. US instructors and pilots will remain here “for an indefinite period.” But who will they care of and support? Here are the options:

Firstly, it could be a hypothetical “Arab NATO” with Saudi Arabia in the lead. But there are serious doubts as to the effectiveness of such a structure – even if we forget about the level of combat readiness of these kinds of coalitions (in Yemen, for example), Arab countries could unite only on an anti-Israeli platform. And that, as history shows, is unlikely to yield success. In addition to this, it is still unclear how Kurds, the majority of whom are not religious, will react to Wahhabi commanders.

Secondly, the United States could choose to strengthen the Arab sector of the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (Rojava militia) at the expense of the Kurds. In mid-September, a number of media outlets, citing sources in the Syrian opposition, reported that Saudi emissaries had already suggested this option while meeting with leaders of the Arab tribes living east of the Euphrates. However, this development is also fraught with the Kurdish-Arab confrontation.

Thirdly, Washington persists in its attempts to improve relations with Turkey,  distancing it from Russia and Iran, and instruct it to “maintain order” in the region: the Americans did not intervene in the Operation Olive Branch and made concessions on Manbij. Even though this might seem strange amid the hostile American-Turkish rhetoric, military and political contacts between Washington and Ankara have been on the rise in recent months. Moreover, President Erdogan has already stated that he believes in an early improvement of relations with the United States despite the “inconsistency” and “economic aggression” of Washington.

Meanwhile, we need to remember that the US control over Kurds is far from unlimited. The “people’s protection units” are ideologically close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or could even be seen as its “branch” in Syria), and the PKK itself, grown on the Marxist ideas, would normally support the Soviet Union and “by inertia” – Russia. For this reason, the Americans have to threaten the Kurdish allies with a cessation of military and financial support. Reports say the US and Turkish troops are already operating in the Manbij area, having dislodged the Kurdish YPG militia from the area.

These threats, along with the self-withdrawal of the United States during the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops, have made Kurds doubt the reliability of their patron. The result is a move towards rapprochement with Damascus. In late July, the Kurdish leadership announced an agreement with the Syrian authorities on the creation of a “road map” for the formation of a decentralized Syria.

The Americans are not sitting idle either, though it looks like they have no concrete plan of action. Such a conclusion comes from Donald Trump’s somewhat incoherent answers to questions from a correspondent of the Kurdish media group Rudaw (09/27/2018):

Question: What are you planning to do for (Syrian – AI) Kurds?

Answer: We will offer them a lot of help. As you know, we are good friends to them, we fought shoulder to shoulder with ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), we recently defeated ISIL (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). We accomplished this with the support of the Kurds. They are great warriors. You know, some nations are great warriors, and some are not. The Kurds are great warriors, they are a wonderful people. We are currently negotiating this.

Question: So what will you do to support them?

Answer: As I said, we will negotiate this, we have begun negotiations. The Kurds have helped us a lot to crush ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation).

Most likely, the hot phase of the protracted inter-Syrian conflict is nearing its end, and the preferences of the Kurds will determine the outcome of future elections, a referendum, or another form of will expression of the Syrian people, when the political situation allows it. Moscow has always called for involving Kurds in the negotiation process and on ensuring their full participation in the life of post-war Syria. “Russia insists that Kurds should participate in the process to determine the post-conflict future of Syria on a parity basis with other ethnic and religious groups of this country,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Italian magazine Panorama.

Until recently, Damascus did not particularly pedal negotiations with Rojava, but being aware that the capture of Afrin by Turkish troops was not in its interests, it has adjusted its approach to the self-proclaimed territorial entity. It looks like Syrian leaders have opted for softening their stance, which was previously set on the revival of the country on the basis of unitarism. Otherwise, an agreement with the Kurds will be nowhere in sight.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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Jamal Khashoggi rejiggers the Middle East at potentially horrible cost

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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The fate of missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assuming that his disappearance was the work of Saudi security and military officials, threatens to upend the fundaments of fault lines in the Middle East.

At stake is not only the fate of a widely respected journalist and the future of Turkish-Saudi relations.

Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, whether he was kidnapped by Saudi agents during a visit to the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul to obtain proof of his divorce or murdered on its premises, threatens to severely disrupt the US-Saudi alliance that underwrites much of the Middle East’s fault lines.

A US investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s fate mandated by members of the US Congress and an expected meeting between President Donald J. Trump, and the journalist’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, could result in a US and European embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and impact the kingdom’s brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen.

It also would project Saudi Arabia as a rogue state and call into question US and Saudi allegations that Iran is the Middle East’s main state supporter of terrorism.

The allegations formed a key reason for the United States’ withdrawal with Saudi, United Arab Emirates and Israeli backing from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and the re-imposition of crippling economic sanctions.

They also would undermine Saudi and UAE justification of their 15-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that the two Gulf states, alongside Egypt and Bahrain, accuse of supporting terrorism.

Condemnation and sanctioning of Saudi Arabia by the international community would complicate Chinese and Russian efforts to walk a fine line in their attempts to ensure that they are not sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Russia and China would be at a crossroads if Saudi Arabia were proven to be responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and the issue of sanctions would be brought to the United Nations Security Council.

Both Russia and China have so far been able to maintain close ties to Saudi Arabia despite their efforts to defeat US sanctions against Iran and Russia’s alliance with the Islamic republic in their support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

A significantly weakened Saudi Arabia would furthermore undermine Arab cover provided by the kingdom for Mr. Trump’s efforts to impose a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would favour Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

Finally, a conclusive determination that Saudi Arabia was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s fate would likely spark renewed debate about the wisdom of the international community’s support for Arab autocracy that has proven to be unashamedly brutal in its violation of human rights and disregard for international law and conventions.

Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has suffered significant reputational damage irrespective of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, raising the question of his viability if Saudi Arabia were condemned internationally and stability in the kingdom, a key tenant of US, Chinese and Russian Middle East policy, were to be at risk.

The reputational damage suffered by Prince Mohammed embarrasses UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who together with his aides and representatives in world capitals, worked hard to project his Saudi counterpart as the kingdom’s future.

Saudi Arabia has so far done itself few favours by flatly rejecting any responsibility for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance with no evidence that the journalist left the consulate at his own volition; asserting that claims that it was involved were fabrications by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; seeking to defame Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancé and supporters; and refusing to fully cooperate with Turkish investigators.

Saudi reluctance to cooperate as well as the US investigation and Ms. Cengiz’s expected meeting with Mr. Trump complicate apparent Turkish efforts to find a resolution of the escalating crisis that would allow Saudi Arabia to save face and salvage Turkey’s economic relationship with the kingdom.

Turkey, despite deep policy differences with Saudi Arabia over Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, has so far refrained from statements that go beyond demanding that Saudi Arabia prove its assertion that Mr. Khashoggi left the Istanbul consulate at his own volition and fully cooperate with the Turkish investigation.

Reports by anonymous Turkish officials detailing gruesome details of Mr. Khashoggi’s alleged murder by Saudi agents appear designed to pressure Saudi Arabia to comply with the Turkish demands and efforts to manage the crisis.

Widely acclaimed, Mr. Khashoggi’s fate, irrespective of whether he as yet emerges alive or is proven to have been brutally murdered, is reshaping the political map of the Middle East. The possibility, if not likelihood is that he paid a horrendous price for sparking the earthquake that is already rumbling across the region.

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